Biologists at the Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts have just spent 6 years digitally reconstructing a tiny piece of mouse brain tissue. Led by Jeff Lichtman, the team were able to recreate the minute scrap of tissue which is smaller than even a tiny bead of sweat. This is the first ever complete reconstruction of the neocortex, and while there’s a long way to go before scientists can reconstruct the billion cells that make up a human brain, the technologies used in this project are likely to improve tremendously over the next ten years, meaning that could eventually be possible.
A multi-step procedure was followed to reconstruct the tissue, starting with the shaving of a region of the mouse neocortex into several thousand slices, which were then rolled onto a strip of plastic tape. Each section of tape was scanned by an extremely powerful electron microscope. These digital images were then aligned to reconstruct a tiny cube of tissue, with the parts in each cell aligned to match up with their positions on adjacent slides, following a specially designed computer programme. The resultant tiny cube of tissue was so small that it didn’t even contain an entire cell, however it did contain fragments of over 1,600 neurons, 1,700 synapses and at least six different types of brain cells.
The researchers are now working on constructing similar sized pieces of corticial tissue from baby mice, plus they’ve also started work on reconstructing a tiny piece of human brain which was acquired during routine surgery. Through their work, it’s hoped that we’ll not only gain a greater understanding of the brain, but that new methods of computing may be developed that will help us to learn more about the codes used by the brain that affect our behaviour and decision making.
The next challenge for Lichtman and his team is to recreate a cubic millimetre of rodent neocortex, which is 600,000 times larger than their current reconstruction. They have already received preliminary approval for funding for this project, and they hope to start work on mapping not just the anatomy of this piece of tissue, but its function and how it computes information too.
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